CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Illinois head coach Chris Tamas expected a slugfest.
Instead, Illinois swept Marquette on Friday morning at Huff Hall.
Now, the Illini are headed to their first Elite Eight since finishing as national runners-up in 2011.
“Going into the year, this was our year,” said junior Jacqueline Quade. “The seniors are leaving us, and we’re just really exciting to get past that point.”
Senior setter Jordyn Poulter put the Illini’s postseason run in perspective of her four years in Champaign, having missed the tournament in 2016, which was sandwiched between Sweet 16 losses in 2015 and ‘17.
“We made the Sweet 16, only to miss it with a pretty big dip,” Poulter said. “Now to get back here and climb a little farther is really exciting and great for the program, all the support we’ve received this season.”
The 11 a.m. start time wasn’t an issue for Illinois (31-3), who have won nine of 10 sets over three matches in the NCAA Tournament. The No. 3 Illini swept Eastern Michigan in the first round last Friday before defeating Louisville in four on Saturday.
It wasn’t sold out in Huff Hall like the Illini’s opening weekend matches, but Tamas and his team were sure to thank those fans who showed up on a weekday morning to support the team.
“It wasn’t an ideal time for a match,” Tamas said, “but I knew we’d pack the gym. For us, it’s part of the bonus for having the [No. 3 national] seed — you get the crowd behind you.
“Hopefully none of the students missed class,” Tamas joked.
No. 14 Marquette (28-7) took the match’s first point, but it was clear it was Illinois’ to lose from the first serve. After trading the first three points, Illinois rattled off five in a row and took its first lead at 3-2 on senior setter Jordyn Poulter’s block. The Illini took a commanding 6-2 lead before Marquette head coach Ryan Theis called his first timeout.
Illinois kept it up out of the break, adding two more points. By tooling the block and using the back of the court, the Golden Eagles took the Illini out of their game of the net — Illinois’ clear advantage — and mounted a comeback at 14-13.
But the morning crowd got involved, standing up and chanting I-L-L while proving the home-court advantage preached over the past few weeks by the Illini true. Illinois won five of the next seven points, pushing its lead back to three at 19-16, and finished Marquette after another timeout, en route a 25-19 first-set victory.
On if the crowd had any effect on the visitors, Golden Eagles players said they knew there would be a good crowd, but didn’t really know what to expect.
“It was fun to be in front of so many fans and be in that environment,” said Marquette junior Allie Barber. “They didn’t disappoint.”
Junior hitter Jacqueline Quade also didn’t disappoint. Quade led the Illini toward the end, finishing the first set with eight kills in 13 attacks (.538), while Poulter and fellow senior middle blocker Ali Bastianelli each added a pair of blocks.
Quade finished with a team-high 12 kills, and earned praise from Marquette’s head coach following the match.
“[Quade] came out lights out,” Theis said. “She was really efficient. We gave her a little confidence that she probably doesn’t need. They came out on fire offensively.”
Illinois continued using the net to its advantage in the second set, running off to a 11-7 advantage. Marquette, again, made a comeback and made it a 17-16 set before Tamas called his first timeout of the game.
Quade put a little too much on an attack late in the second as Marquette tied the set at 19, but Martha Konovodoff’s service error — one of eight in the first two sets — kept Illinois alive with all of the free points. For comparison, Illinois only had two such errors over the first two sets.
A pair of tip kills was the difference the Illini needed to pull away in a 25-21 second-set win, finished by a bad set by Konovodoff.
Quade’s second set was quieter than the first, as junior — and Big Ten Sportsmanship Award recipient — Beth Prince led the way with five kills.
After the five-minute break, Illinois led early in the third set, jumping out to a 6-3 lead behind a kill and service ace from junior Ashlyn Fleming. Fleming transferred from Pacific before the season, and added a boost to the Illini’s nationally ranked roster and earned Second-Team All-Big Ten accolades.
Fleming finished second on the Illini with 10 kills on Friday.
On being such an integral part of a championship-looking team, Fleming said: “It’s really exciting. I wasn’t prepared for anything that happened, but coming in and getting acclimated to the team and having them as teammates made all of that really easy. The coaches really started right from the beginning to help me get used to the speed of the Big Ten, and that really helped.”
Marquette grabbed a point, but Illinois went running away from the team that finished second in the Big East this season, jumping ahead early in a set for the first time on the day with a 10-4 lead.
Illinois finished the first set in rout fashion, 25-16.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Through the first half of the second set, Marquette was right there.
Then there was this volley, the attack error, and a complete Illini advantage.
TWEET OF THE MATCH
THEY SAID IT
“Every win we have is a big deal. We’ve been through these battles throughout the Big Ten. You have all these big marquee matchups and you celebrate them, but we work when we have to. We’ll celebrate this one, high-five each other, and then it’s on to Wisconsin or San Diego.” - Tamas, on what’s next.
Illinois will continue the NCAA Tournament in the Elite 8 on Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m. at Huff Hall. The Illini will face the winner of Friday’s match between Wisconsin and San Diego. Illinois split its matches with Big Ten rival Wisconsin this season, with the road team winning each game.
The winner of Saturday’s game advances to the Final Four, beginning at the Target Center in Minneapolis next Thursday.